Fnew musicals may claim to represent an era – Hair is as indelible an image of free-love hippiedom as the images of flower children in Haight-Ashbury, while The Phantom of the Opera speaks to the hyper-commercialism of the 80s as strongly as Gordon Gekko – and certainly the producers of Tony-sweeping Moulin Rouge! prefer not to have their show forever associated with a global pandemic. And yet, after the Broadway cast was ravaged by Covid, and Australia’s own production in Melbourne opened months too late due to lockdowns, the pure perseverance of the theater makers has rarely been so sharply felt.
That the musical is about a woman who dies of a communicable disease but is determined that “the show must continue” now seems central in a way that Baz Luhrmann could not have imagined when he recorded the film, as this stage adaptation is based on. Fans of the 2001 film will find much that is similar – especially a few scenes feel so reminiscent of Luhrmann’s cinematic vision that the effect is eerie – but also much that is surprising and new. There are even elements that surpass the original, in spectacle and emotional weight.
Not least of these are the voices. Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor are verifiable movie stars, but neither of them is a natural singer. In the Melbourne production, which started performances the same day as the London show, Alinta Chidzey and Des Flanagan play lovers Satine and Christian. They bring true powerful vocal skill to the score, an important distinction given the extra demands of new songs. Katy Perry’s Firework, Sia’s Chandelier, and Adele’s Rolling in the Deep are all great numbers, and the cast performs them with seemingly effortless skill.
Luhrmann’s central gimmick in the Moulin Rouge! imagines that Christian, a moneyless composer in Montmartre during the Belle Époque, is so talented that every song he invents is a huge hit, the entire back catalog of 20th and 21st century pop music sitting inactive inside his foresighted brain. It allows the mother of all mash-ups, in a score ranging from Edith Piaf to Beyoncé, via Elvis and Bob Dylan. Unlike most jukebox musicals, which tend to be lazy and random in their choice of songs, Justin Levine’s musical arrangements and orchestrations are so ingenious, so thoughtful, and tuned to the show’s dramatic architecture, that the 75 separate songs feel as a fully integrated composition. It may be a loud night in the theater, but it is perfectly calibrated.
Visually, it is lavish and intricately detailed. Derek McLane’s set is replete with clever references to the film – the boudoir where Christian and Satine first meet resembles an exact replica of Catherine Martin’s original stage design – and Catherine Zuber’s beautiful costumes are captivating in tableaux and spectacular in movement. Justin Townsend’s lighting design is dazzling with its deep red and warm yellow hues, but it also sharpens the eye in a show that could easily become visually overwhelming. The overall effect is somehow both captivatingly trashy and elegantly sumptuous.
No one in the cast puts a foot wrong. Chidzey becomes a wonderfully dignified courtesan, tired of her efforts to avert death and unwanted men. Flanagan is a revelation, charmingly sincere and graceful as the unfaithful lover. His voice has a certain impressive depth, and occasionally some rock-bending force, though he leans a little too heavily on the vibrato in his upper register. Andrew Cook makes a suitably slimy duke, and Tim Omaji and Ryan Gonzalez are a fantastic supporter like Toulouse-Lautrec and Santiago. Simon Burke seems born to play Harold Zidler; blissful and carnal, he walks across the stage like a demented Pandarus.
There’s an insane amount of work that goes into a show of this kind, and director Alex Timbers twists each one gram of pleasure from his team. The ensemble devours Sonya Tayeh’s glorious eclectic choreography and power through each scene; there is not a corner of the Regent theater they do not dominate. Moulin Rouge! is a love affair with the theater itself, sensual and passionate and ridiculously entertaining. It takes the dreaded idea of the pandemic and shoots it into the stratosphere. The Melbourne crowd is unlikely to return to earth for a while.